When I sit down to immerse myself in a book, the overall narrative style is important in drawing me into the author's world, but it's generally the so...moreWhen I sit down to immerse myself in a book, the overall narrative style is important in drawing me into the author's world, but it's generally the sophistication of the overall plot and the strength of the characters that makes me want to stay there. As such, I don't usually wax poetic about the lyrical language of a story, the smoothly coursing flow of words, or the layered beauty of sentences and paragraphs.
Well, this is one of those exceptionally notable exceptions.
Under Heaven is, far and away, the finest work of fiction to come from the pen of Guy Gavriel Kay. It's a book that is perfect in almost every respect, so much so that I was sorry to turn that last page and lay it down, finished. It is definitely a long book, and one best enjoyed at a leisurely pace, but it could have continued on for another five or six hundred pages and I would not have voiced a word of complaint.
In terms of plotting, it's an odd tale, and one that requires a unique sort of patience on behalf of the reader. The story at the forefront of the tale initially seems a little light, given the length of the book, but the story behind that is so deep, so heavily layered, that you don't quite realize precisely how much is going on until Kay shakes us out of our complacency and thrusts us into the final part of the book. Most of the book revolves around Shen Tai, second son to a celebrated general of the imperial army, who has spent the last two years burying bones and laying souls to rest around a mountain lake to honour his father's passing. In honour of his efforts, he finds himself granted a gift of impossible value - 250 Sardian horses - that makes him a major player in the political upheaval that threatens to bring about and end to a dynasty.
Along his journey to the capital in answer to a summons from the Emperor, Tai is targeted by assassins, wooed by rebels, betrayed by his elder brother, loved by his protector, befriended by the generation's greatest poet, and drawn into a game of politics that he's never wanted to play. He is forced to rise above his station, to demand the respect accorded to his honours, and to play a shocking role in the transition of an empire. He is a remarkable character, an admirable young man to whom the reader can almost relate - if only he weren't so spectacularly worthy of the highest esteem.
What makes the story so exquisite is the fact that the characters surrounding Tai are so well developed, they they're worthy of being main characters in their own right. In fact, his sister's magical journey is a story all on its own, escalating a young woman to royalty and shipping her off to a barbarous marriage, only to see her rescued by a man more wolf than man. Wei Song, Kanlin warrior and protector to Tai, is another strong woman, one who is largely responsible for seeing him to his destiny, while Wen Jian, Precious Consort of the Emperor, is a woman as dangerous as she is beautiful, and almost dizzying in her grasp of the game of politics.
Like I said, it's a long story, told at a leisurely pace, and narrated almost exclusively in the present tense. It makes for an unusual read, almost too literate for the genre, but the reader's patience is more than amply rewarded. The subtlety of the telling is exceeded only by the intricacy of the schemes and plots, with a myriad of small events commingling to change the course of history. It's a read that leaves me almost reluctant to read River of Stars, since it's almost unimaginable that an author could manage to capture such lyrical magic twice in a row, but if anybody can do it, it's Kay.
The man who brought us The Fionavar Tapestry, and who vocally distanced himself from the epic fantasy genre years later, returns with a simple tale th...moreThe man who brought us The Fionavar Tapestry, and who vocally distanced himself from the epic fantasy genre years later, returns with a simple tale that plays clever homage to the classic that started it all.(less)
Although the writing is stellar, and there are definite touches of the old Melanie Rawn here, the story suffers from the same problem as The Golden Ke...moreAlthough the writing is stellar, and there are definite touches of the old Melanie Rawn here, the story suffers from the same problem as The Golden Key (to which it is a prequel). Both are multi-generational epics, with a focus on families, as opposed to a single protagonist. In that sense, The Diviner is really two books, with a rather abrupt change of both plot and pace about halfway through, as Azzad al-Ma'aliq gives way to his son, Alessid.
The problem is that the son cannot hold a candle to his father, either in personality or deeds. Azzad is a wonderful character, a man who rises above his flaws to become more than just means of retribution. He develops as he matures, exposing hidden facets of his personality that make him more endearing as the story progresses. I loved him as a hero, as a father, as a husband, and as a warrior. He is, without a doubt, one of Melanie’s strongest characters.
It’s just a shame the book couldn’t remain focussed on him.
Alessid, by contrast, is entirely unlikable from the start, and what limited development he displays is, unfortunately, in the wrong direction. I was willing to give him the benefit of the doubt at first, understanding where he’s come from and what kind of legacy he’s inherited, but he was a disappointment. I neither liked nor respected him, and every time he disparaged his father’s memory (which is far too often), he simply reminded me of the gulf between the two.
In all fairness, Azzad’s half of the novel was the far more interesting story, briskly paced, and interspersed with a few moments of reflection. I cared about what was happening, and I found myself anxiously turning pages, desperate to know what would happen next. Alessid’s half of the novel was far less interesting, sluggishly paced, and bogged down with far too many marriages, births, and alliances. Instead of being anxious to find out what happens next, I found myself desperately flipping through pages, hoping to pick up a thread of story that would pull me back in.
It’s a shame Melanie couldn’t maintain the magic of the first half, because there’s a lot about the story to like. If she could have just given us more of the Sheyqa Nizzira, the truly chilling, scene-chewing villainess behind Azzad’s flight into the desert, maybe there would have been no need to dwell on Alessid. Unfortunately, once we get beyond the bloodbath that begins the novel, she ceases to be anything other than a name, a title, a character who exists off-the-page as a focal point for vengeance. She had such promise - I would have really loved to explore her more.
Characters and plotting aside, the Middle East flavouring is a nice change of pace from the typical European fantasy setting, and I loved exploring the origins of the magic that made The Golden Key so enthralling. There were some really nice stylistic touches here, and the quality of the writing itself is full of hints and promises of a return to form for Melanie. I’d like to think this was just a contractual obligation she forced herself through, to give her the freedom to do something new. Time will tell, but here’s hoping her new trilogy follows through on that promise of a return to form, and once again demonstrates the love for her material that seemed lacking here. (less)
If you've ever read Jesse Bullington, then you know he's quickly become known for his darkly humorous, delightfully obscene, disgustingly fantastic ta...moreIf you've ever read Jesse Bullington, then you know he's quickly become known for his darkly humorous, delightfully obscene, disgustingly fantastic tales of humans failings and obsessions. His characters are no more attractive than the vulgar language with which he tells their tales, and nothing is ever safe - or, worse, sacred. While The Folly of the World tries a bit too hard to top its predecessors in terms of characters or narrative, it's still a fascinating tale that offers up Bullington's most traditional (and, for some readers, satisfying) plot to date.
As far as set-pieces go, it is hard to top an entire medieval town submerged beneath the waters of a great flood. It's creepy and surreal, with chimneys and peaked rooftops just poking up from the waters, dead bodies floating alongside giant catfish, and a cemetery mound rising above it all. Drop a young girl into the midst of it all, sent to swim her way through one dark, flooded house in search of a hidden ring, and you've got a definite sense of adventure. Leave a pair of scoundrels in the boat up top, one a coldly calculating bastard, and the other a violently unhinged madman, both of whom take carnal pleasure in one another - often with their ward watching - and you've got a definite taste for the darkly surreal.
Of course, that only carries you through a third of the tale. It's what happens once Jo retrieves the ring that really matters, a story of plots, counter plots, secrets, and betrayals. Time and time again, Bullington teases you into reevaluating everything you thought you knew, and tempts you into second-guessing everything you felt about the characters, their motives, and their personalities. I've never before come across an author who could so deftly sway my feelings towards a character, not just from like to dislike, but across the entire spectrum of disgust, admiration, and then back again.
For me, it was Sander, the madman with a taste for violent erotic asphyxiation, who kept me reading. Despite being a low-life scoundrel with a temper as sharp as his wit, Sander is also a man with a conscience (as deeply buried beneath the muck and mire as it may be), who is at least honest about his vices and his fetishes. Reminding most of the characters who drew me into The Sad Tale of the Brothers Grossbart and The Enterprise of Death, he serves to provide a much-needed contrast to the often hidden ugliness of the characters around him. While its the Jan-Jo and Jan-Sander relationships that launch the tale, it's the Sander-Jo relationship that carries it through to the conclusion.
Strangely, I found that Bullington's attempts to provoke the reader were actually more transparent here, and not in The Enterprise of Death, as many readers have suggested. Perhaps that, coupled with my gradual dislike for Jan, is the reason I found the whole to be slightly less satisfying than his other work. Regardless, a new book from Bullington is always a refreshing addition to the shelves, and fans of his grim, cynical, darkly humorous work will find this to be a thoroughly engaging read.
Character-driven, tightly-plotted, and propelled along by an intriguing central mystery, The Duchess of the Shallows is a refreshing addition to the f...moreCharacter-driven, tightly-plotted, and propelled along by an intriguing central mystery, The Duchess of the Shallows is a refreshing addition to the fantasy genre. Neil McGarry and Daniel Ravipinto demonstrate their love for the genre, as well as their talent for creating living, breathing, identifiable characters. By the time the opening chapter is done, you can't help but want to see Duchess succeed, and it doesn't take more than a few chapters more for the likes of Lysander and his fellow ganymedes to endear themselves to the reader.
In many ways, this is a typical fantasy novel, complete with the young protagonist who is destined for greatness. What sets Duchess apart, however, is the well-played mystery of just who she really is, and precisely how she fits into this new world into which she's trying to gain entry. The setting is typical too, a medieval-like city, separated by class, but there's a novelty to the overall cascading design, as well as to the elements within it. The mysterious fog that regularly rolls in, disguising and transforming the town, is a very nice touch, enhanced by Duchess and her connection to it.
The plot had me concerned at first, with things working out a little too conveniently - and coincidentally. Once the story gets going, and new elements begin to be layered upon the opening quest/task, however, McGarry and Ravipinto find their stride and seem to settle into a smarter, more comfortable plot. I quite liked the way the story developed, and the conclusion managed to play to my expectations while somehow managing to surprise me at the same time.
I think what really put it over the top, though, was the intelligence and creativity involved in the dealings, negotiations, and manoeuvrings. This is a world where nothing is free, and no good, no service, and no snippet of information is exchanged without wringing every ounce of value from it. Manipulation is the name of the game, and just about everyone is playing it.
Considering we're talking about one of the most sadistic tyrants of the early 15th century, I really expected to enjoy Pyramid of Skulls: A Novel of T...moreConsidering we're talking about one of the most sadistic tyrants of the early 15th century, I really expected to enjoy Pyramid of Skulls: A Novel of Timur, Warrior and Emperor more than I did. It's not that it's a bad novel, I just found it hard to get involved in the story. I couldn't quite bring myself to give up on it, but it was a bit of a struggle to keep going back to it.
Martin Fruchtman has clearly done his research, and he does a superb job of conveying not just the horrors of war, but the practicalities of torture and intimidation. He paints an interesting picture of the political and religious landscape,and really develops the elements of the various cultures that come together. Timur is a difficult man to build a story around, since he's completely abhorrent and unlikable, but there is no denying he is a brilliant leader. He's not a man you enjoy reading about, and certainly not a hero to tie your hopes, but he is fascinating on an intellectual level.
It's David, Timur's Jewish doctor, who makes the story accessible, his presence an interesting narrative trick on behalf of Fruchtman, and one that allows for some thought-provoking observations on just how little we, as a society, have changed over the years. He drives the story forward, connects the various plot threads, and 'speaks' for the reader in many ways. While the book didn't entirely work for me as a novel (in terms of protagonists and villains, story arc, etc.), it certainly did work as a sort of narrative biography, which I do enjoy, but not with the all-consuming, complete immersion of an epic novel.
It's an easy story to become overwhelmed by, especially with the gratuitous gore and relentless carnage, but worth sticking with if you're at all interested in the history of warfare, conquest, empire building, and religious fanaticism. Well-written and well-researched, it's definitely worth a read for the right audience.
Not really having any expectations going in, I was pleasantly surprised by On the Matter of the Red Hand (Judicar's Oath). This was a gritty, intrigui...moreNot really having any expectations going in, I was pleasantly surprised by On the Matter of the Red Hand (Judicar's Oath). This was a gritty, intriguing fantasy that managed to establish the rough boundaries of a new fantasy world, while telling a self-contained tale within it. Clearly, there is far more to the story than is being told in this slender volume, but it certainly serves to whet the reader's appetite for more.
Thom is a fantastic character, part fantasy hero, and part pulp/noir detective. Actually, I liked the whole idea of the Judicars, their role in society, and their subterfuge in blurring the lines between magic and madness. We don't get to 'see' a lot of Teredon, but what we are told about the city - and its criminal element - is intriguing, and more than enough to orient us within the tale. As for the mystery behind the tale, Thom's search for a missing woman, that was played out extraordinarily well, keeping me on my toes with a few twists that I didn't see coming, but which didn't feel at all forced.
If I were to have one complaint about the book, it's that the narrative could have benefited from a bit more description. There were several places where I got lost in either the dialogue or the narrative itself, not quite sure who was speaking to whom. That's a minor quibble, though, and one that bothered me less and less as I settled into the story.
Overall, this was a quick, fast-paced read, and one that gives the reader credit for some intelligence. There's no spoon feeding of facts and terminology, no detailed glossaries or appendices. Instead, the story is told within the context of the world in which its set, by a narrator who assumes we'll either catch on or get out of his way.
A sequel in terms of setting and history, if not character or plot, River of Stars sees Guy Gavriel Kay return to the Chinese-inspired world of Under...moreA sequel in terms of setting and history, if not character or plot, River of Stars sees Guy Gavriel Kay return to the Chinese-inspired world of Under Heaven. It's a book that can be enjoyed by new readers as a standalone volume, but one which holds added significance for readers already familiar with the first.
As a fan of Kay's work, and someone who thoroughly enjoyed Shen Tai's journey through the dying days of the Tang Dynasty, I was quite curious to discover how Ren Daiyan's adventures in the Song Dynasty might compare. Aside from a shared history, the two stories couldn't be more different. While the first was a story of an empire at its height, full of luxury, decadence, and self-indulgence, as told through the eyes of a noble young man nearly overcome by his fortune, River of Stars is the story of an empire suffering through its own decline, as told through the eyes of a young outlaw struggling to find his place in the world.
Even if you aren't familiar enough with what has come before to recognize the little tidbits and snippets of news regarding characters and events from Under Heaven, there's a feeling of melancholy here - a sense of remorse for the lost days of glory - that is inescapable. Along with that comes a significant amount of foreshadowing, almost to the point of implying a kind of inescapable destiny on the part of the narrator. Whereas we never really knew what to expect should Shen Tai ever reach the Emperor, we can see all to clearly where Ren Daiyan's choices are destined to lead him. With this second tale, it's less a matter of trying to seize one's own destiny, and more a matter of trying to escape it.
The language here is, once again, beautiful in its poetic flow. It's a heavy story, and not one to be breezed through in a few sittings, but also one that's very easy to become lost in, constantly seducing you into reading just one more chapter. The style is appropriately evocative of the culture, but still retains that literary flair for which Kay is known so well. In terms of narrative, however, River of Stars is subtly different from Under Heaven. There's less immediacy to the tale, and more of an omniscient narrative voice this time around. We still get shifting POVs, often putting us in the heads of characters to whom we become attached only to never see again, but those are interspersed with an omniscient, third-person POV. Fortunately, Kay doesn't rely too heavily on that voice, keeping the story intimate and personal.
As far as the characters go, Kay actually surpasses himself here. Ren Daiyan, as unlikable as he often may be, is a fantastic protagonist. He's a flawed young man who grows and develops significantly throughout the course of the novel. He surprised me on several occasions, committing himself to courses of action that initially seemed the wildest of whims, but which justify themselves later on. Lin Shan, a young woman described at one point as "the clever one, too tall and thin, overly educated for a woman - a discredit, it is widely said, to her sex" is a sort of co-protagonist, one with her own distinct story arc that nicely intersects that of Ren Daiyan. She was one of those characters I expected to drift away from early on, and was pleasantly surprised by how much of a role she had to play in events later on.
Kai Zhen is another of those sympathetic antagonists that Kay crafts so well, a character who is selfish and cruel, but also quite vulnerable and too easily swayed by the women around him. He's an entirely distasteful gentleman that you want to hate, but that hatred is tempered with a significant amount of pity . . . and, at times, even a bit of admiration. Speaking of the women around him, Tan Ming, the concubine who so cleverly escalates herself to becoming his wife, is a richly painted woman of opportunity whose role in the story ends far too soon. Tuan Lungis is another character whom we part ways too soon, but it's interesting the ways in which he touches Ren Daiyan's life at key moments. Sun Shiwei, the assassin who makes such a brief, yet pivotal appearance, is one character I felt was used perfectly - as much as I would have liked to see more of him, the brevity of his role is entirely appropriate to his profession.
I wrote in my review of Under Heaven that I was actually reluctant to read River of Stars, since it was all but unimaginable that an author could manage to capture such lyrical magic twice in a row, but Kay has done just that. It's another long story, better paced than its predecessor, and driven by a slightly stronger protagonist. If it lacks some of the subtlety of the first, it certainly eclipses it in terms of demonstrating how seemingly insignificant, very personal choices can conspired to change the course of history.
Offering up a heady mix of mythology, folklore, and prophecy, The Daughter of Ares Chronicles by Shannon McRoberts falls somewhere between classical a...moreOffering up a heady mix of mythology, folklore, and prophecy, The Daughter of Ares Chronicles by Shannon McRoberts falls somewhere between classical adventure and epic fantasy. The overall story arc is comprised of three books, each of which offers up a satisfying story on its own, but which are interlinked by the stories of Athine and her sisters.
The Beginning establishes McRobert's world, presenting us with prophecies of doom and visions of hope, all centring around the young women selectively bred by the gods and goddesses to fulfill their anticipated roles. Multiple points of view, exhaustive background detail, intriguing twists and turns, and a careful development of her 'new' mythology carries the tale through to a strong end.
The story picks back up in The Narkurru, building upon the first chapter with a focus on Amazonian mythology. A simpler tale than the first one, it's definitely a bit of an easier read, but the conflicts and friendships already established lend it some added weight. In a nod to more traditional fantasy, McRoberts ventures into the realm of enchanted weapons, weaving them into her story.
With a story that blends the elements of the first two chapters, The Blood Sisters picks up on the legendary promiscuity of Zeus to offer an intriguing new origin and mythology for vampires. Even if it lacks the dire weight of prophecy that seemed to hang over the first volume, this concluding chapter is definitely the most significant of the three in terms of consequences and the potential for change.
McRoberts does an admirable job of building upon the classical legends we're already familiar with, adding additional branches of goddesses and demigoddesses to Zeus' rather convoluted family tree. Rather than try to replant the stories we already know, she uses them to establish roots for her tale, telling new stories that have either grown from or developed alongside those classic branches.
While I wouldn't necessarily call this a feminist fantasy, the three stories are very focused on the idea of feminine power, much the same way Xena: Warrior Princess or even Buffy The Vampire Slayer are. A great story arc, with a nice progression of themes, and some well-developed characters to carry it along, The Daughter of Ares Chronicles is definitely worth a read.
This is probably one of the most intriguing historical crime thrillers I have ever had the pleasure of reading. It's not just a police procedural awkw...moreThis is probably one of the most intriguing historical crime thrillers I have ever had the pleasure of reading. It's not just a police procedural awkwardly transplanted to the Roman era, but a story of criminal intrigue that belongs entirely in that bygone, almost mythological era. Admittedly, I don't remember a great deal about my University studies in ancient history, but my sense is that Johnstone really knows his stuff.
Let's get the obvious out of the way and talk about the history. The setting here is impeccable, well-developed, perfectly detailed, and nicely balanced in terms of that with which we should be familiar - particularly the darker, poorer side of the city - and the elements most readers likely never encountered in school. The characters are strong as well, playing their expected roles in the world of ancient Alexandria, but also coming alive as living, breathing, individuals with whom we, as readers, interact. I suspect their crassness and vulgarity may be a bit anachronistic, but the genre pretty much demands it.
While more properly described as a thriller than a mystery, this is still a story that manages to build suspense, keep us guessing, and throw in a few twists along the way. Murder, theft, lies, and backstabbing betrayals, it's all here. Aculeo's story could just as easily have been a contemporary one, but likely not half as interesting. Despite beginning the story as a washed-up, bitter drunk, he's a character to whom we quickly warm up. Sekhet is a woman whom I'm sure is an anachronism, but I wouldn't have it any other way. She serves an important role in terms of plot, but also plays well off of Acuelo. There's a large cast of supporting characters, many of whom we only see for a scene, but they're all important.
Overall, probably the most unique read I've encountered in quite some time, and an altogether pleasant surprise. As genre-crossovers go, this one is not to be missed.
Heraclix & Pomp is a book that feels much older than it is, and that is most definitely a compliment. In reading it, one can't help but wonder if...moreHeraclix & Pomp is a book that feels much older than it is, and that is most definitely a compliment. In reading it, one can't help but wonder if what Forrest Aguirre has really done is uncover a lost masterpiece of the 18th century, edit it, clean it up, and present it for our enjoyment. Yes, there are some very 21st century flourishes to the prose, particularly in the sense of weird humor, but the language, the storyline, and the mythology all hearken back to an earlier era.
What we have here is a story about death, a story about redemption, and a story about justice. There's actually more to it than that - this is a very philosophical read - but those are the three themes that stand out most strongly, and which permeate the entire text.
Heraclix is a golem, an 18th precursor to Frankenstein, crafted not out of clay but out of stolen and scavenged body parts. A magical man without a memory, a man crafted from death, he seeks to learn what life is all about. Pomp, on the other hand, is a fairy or a sprite, a happy go lucky magical being who had no concept of death until the cruelties of Mowler saw their respective moralities cross paths. As for Mowler, he is an evil sorcerer, a repugnant human being who has been bargaining with Beelzebub for centuries to cheat his own death. Beelzebub himself, not to mention the flies over which he is Lord, are another element of death that permeates the text, as are the ghosts who quite literally haunt the tale.
Like I said, this is also a story about redemption, with Heraclix seeking to atone for the crimes of his various body parts, particularly his hand - which tends to have a cruel life of its own. Pomp is also seeking redemption of a sort, having come to regret the cruel tricks of her past, as she comes to understand concepts such as cruelty, death, and the past. The healer being haunted by the ghosts, whose own story is also part of Heraclix's tale, is another man trapped and defined by his efforts to redeem the crimes of his past. Even the poor young errand boy, who did nothing more than deliver that ominous hand, is seeking redemption not for his own evil, but for his association with it, and the cruelties it inflicted on his mother.
Justice, of course, is intimately tied in with the pursuit of redemption, but it also touches on the more banal, political side of the tale. There are alliances, allegiances, and partnerships throughout the book, all of which draw the characters together and ultimately define the beginning and the end of Heraclix & Pomp's epic journey. For, make no mistake, this is very much the tale of a journey, one that descends into the very depths of Hell, before returning to cross the landscape of the known world.
Weirdly humorous and wondrously magical, Heraclix & Pomp is a book that you'll feel like you should have read before, and which you'll be delighted to find you don't in fact remember. Like Pomp herself, learning the concept of remembering along with that of before and yet, the reader is somewhat trapped between expectations and experiences. The narrative is exquisite, the language fantastic, and the physical depictions - particularly of hell and the flies - almost too vivid to endure. It's a book that grabs you from the opening chapter, so grab yourself a copy, introduce yourself to our three main characters, and settle in for an adventure of another age.